The meat’s formlessness leaves you unaware and unconcerned that it was once part of an animal, a small flightless bird that lived its entire life in a small cage without much natural light. It is completely lacking in anatomical markers beyond the word “breast.” You trust that it is a breast and not something else. Whatever it is, it seems to come from a limitless supply because it’s always there when you want it.
The boneless breast cannot be used creatively because creativity works though limitation and obstacle. With boneless meat the obstacles are already overcome. Being perfectly bland, it can accommodate a limitless variety of spices and condiments. It lacks the very things—blood, bone, marrow, skin, and fat—that would give it flavor and texture through the transformative act of cooking. The boneless breast is a ready-made object that is used in conjunction with other ready-made additives to become a meal. It is everything that is wrong about the industrial food apparatus.
A sea robin is the exact opposite. Being nearly all bone and covered in mildly poisonous spines, this ugly northeastern trash fish is the palatal antichrist to boneless chicken. In New England, it’s considered an overabundant nuisance fish that poaches bait meant for stripers. In fact, the robin is considered so unworthy a fish that fishermen refuse to acknowledge them in their catch. A Long Islander who catches 10 sea robins and one bluefish will tell you he didn’t get into the striper.
When my fishing buddy reeled in a huge robin, I plucked it out of the surf in excitement and got a half-inch spine lodged in my thumb. The wound hurt, but I was proud of it. We were no doubt the only Long Island fishermen that day happily leaving the surf with a bucket of robins.
The first time I had sea robin was on a party boat out of Sheepshead Bay. It was fried and served on white bread with spicy mayonnaise and tomato. It was delicious. I couldn’t believe that this was the ugly red fish with the oversized head and bat wings that everybody scoffed at. When the captain decided to move the boat from our current location because we were hooking too many robins, my friend and I looked at each other in mild disappointment.
There are two paths available to us going forward this century: The sea robin and the boneless chicken breast. The path of the sea robin is about embracing what it is ugly, precarious, labor-intensive, and near; the path of the boneless breast embraces what is cheap, easy, and removed from the reality of our food practices. The robin, like any freshly caught fish, reminds you of the pleasure of standing on the beach and casting into the surf. Eating boneless chicken is a completely forgettable experience unless you get salmonella. The path of the sea robin is sustainable and forces us to partake in death and manage waste; the path of boneless chicken breasts leads to oblivion.